TRANG BANG, Vietnam – In the picture, the girl will always be 9 years old and wailing”Too hot! Too hot!” as she runs down the road away from her burningVietnamese village. She will always be naked after blobs of sticky napalm meltedthrough her clothes and layers of skin like jellied lava. She will always be a victim without a name. It only took a second for Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong”Nick” Ut to snap the iconic black-and-white image 40 years ago. Itcommunicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words couldnever describe, helping to end one of the most divisive wars inAmerican history.
But beneath the photo lies a lesser-known story. It’s the tale of adying child brought together by chance with a young photographer. Amoment captured in the chaos of war that would serve as both hersavior and her curse on a journey to understand life’s plan forher. “I really wanted to escape from that little girl,” says Kim Phuc,now 49.
“But it seems to me that the picture didn’t let me go.” ____ It was June 8, 1972, when Phuc heard the soldier’s scream: “We haveto run out of this place! They will bomb here, and we will bedead!” Seconds later, she saw the tails of yellow and purple smoke bombscurling around the Cao Dai temple where her family had shelteredfor three days, as north and south Vietnamese forces fought forcontrol of their village. The little girl heard a roar overhead and twisted her neck to lookup. As the South Vietnamese Skyraider plane grew fatter and louder,it swooped down toward her, dropping canisters like tumbling eggsflipping end over end. “Ba-boom! Ba-boom!” The ground rocked. Stainless Steel Heat Exchanger Tubes
Then the heat of a hundred furnaces exploded asorange flames spit in all directions. Fire danced up Phuc’s left arm. The threads of her cotton clothesevaporated on contact. Trees became angry torches. Stainless Steel Sanitary Tubing
Searing pain bitthrough skin and muscle. “I will be ugly, and I’m not normal anymore,” she thought, as herright hand brushed furiously across her blistering arm. “Peoplewill see me in a different way.” In shock, she sprinted down Highway 1 behind her older brother. Shedidn’t see the foreign journalists gathered as she ran toward them,screaming. Stainless Steel Heat Exchanger Tubes
Then, she lost consciousness. ___ Ut, the 21-year-old Vietnamese photographer who took the picture,drove Phuc to a small hospital. There, he was told the child wastoo far gone to help. But he flashed his American press badge,demanded that doctors treat the girl and left assured that shewould not be forgotten.
“I cried when I saw her running,” said Ut, whose older brother waskilled on assignment with the AP in the southern Mekong Delta. “IfI don’t help her — if something happened and she died —I think I’d kill myself after that.” Back at the office in what was then U.S.-backed Saigon, hedeveloped his film. When the image of the naked little girlemerged, everyone feared it would be rejected because of the newsagency’s strict policy against nudity. But veteran Vietnam photo editor Horst Faas took one look and knewit was a shot made to break the rules. He argued the photo’s newsvalue far outweighed any other concerns, and he won.
A couple of days after the image shocked the world, anotherjournalist found out the little girl had somehow survived theattack. Christopher Wain, a correspondent for the BritishIndependent Television Network who had given Phuc water from hiscanteen and drizzled it down her burning back at the scene, foughtto have her transferred to the American-run Barsky unit. It was theonly facility in Saigon equipped to deal with her severe injuries. “I had no idea where I was or what happened to me,” she said. “Iwoke up and I was in the hospital with so much pain, and then thenurses were around me.
I woke up with a terrible fear.” Thirty percent of Phuc’s tiny body was scorched raw by third-degreeburns, though her face somehow remained untouched. Over time, hermelted flesh began to heal. “Every morning at 8 o’clock, the nurses put me in the burn bath tocut all my dead skin off,” she said. “I just cried and when I couldnot stand it any longer, I just passed out.” After multiple skin grafts and surgeries, Phuc was finally allowedto leave, 13 months after the bombing. She had seen Ut’s photo,which by then had won the Pulitzer Prize, but she was still unawareof its reach and power.
She just wanted to go home and be a child again. ___ For a while, life did go somewhat back to normal. The photo wasfamous, but Phuc largely remained unknown except to those living inher tiny village near the Cambodian border. Ut and a few otherjournalists sometimes visited her, but that stopped after northerncommunist forces seized control of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975,ending the war. Life under the new regime became tough.
Medical treatment andpainkillers were expensive and hard to find for the teenager, whostill suffered extreme headaches and pain. She worked hard and was accepted into medical school to pursue herdream of becoming a doctor. But all that ended once the newcommunist leaders realized the propaganda value of the ‘napalmgirl’ in the photo. She was forced to quit college and return to her home province,where she was trotted out to meet foreign journalists.
The visitswere monitored and controlled, her words scripted. She smiled andplayed her role, but the rage inside began to build and consumeher. “I wanted to escape that picture,” she said. “I got burned bynapalm, and I became a victim of war … but growing up then, Ibecame another kind of victim.” She turned to Cao Dai, her Vietnamese religion, for answers.
Butthey didn’t come. “My heart was exactly like a black coffee cup,” she said. “I wishedI died in that attack with my cousin, with my south Vietnamesesoldiers. I wish I died at that time so I won’t suffer like thatanymore ..
it was so hard for me to carry all that burden withthat hatred, with that anger and bitterness.” One day, while visiting a library, Phuc found a Bible. For thefirst time, she started believing her life had a plan. Then suddenly, once again, the photo that had given her unwantedfame brought opportunity. She traveled to West Germany in 1982 for medical care with the helpof a foreign journalist.
Later, Vietnam’s prime minister, alsotouched by her story, made arrangements for her to study in Cuba. She was finally free from the minders and reporters hounding her athome, but her life was far from normal. Ut, then working at the APin Los Angeles, traveled to meet her in 1989, but they never had amoment alone. There was no way for him to know she desperatelywanted his help again.
“I knew in my dream that one day Uncle Ut could help me to havefreedom,” said Phuc, referring to him by an affectionate Vietnameseterm. “But I was in Cuba. I was really disappointed because Icouldn’t contact with him. I couldn’t do anything.” ___ While at school, Phuc met a young Vietnamese man. She had neverbelieved anyone would ever want her because of the ugly patchworkof scars that banded across her back and pitted her arm, but BuiHuy Toan seemed to love her more because of them.
The two decided to marry in 1992 and honeymoon in Moscow. On theflight back to Cuba, the newlyweds defected during a refueling stopin Canada. She was free. Phuc contacted Ut to share the news, and he encouraged her to tellher story to the world.
But she was done giving interviews andposing for photos. “I have a husband and a new life and want to be normal likeeveryone else,” she said. The media eventually found Phuc living near Toronto, and shedecided she needed to take control of her story. A book was writtenin 1999 and a documentary came out, at last the way she wanted ittold. She was asked to become a U.N.
Goodwill Ambassador to helpvictims of war. She and Ut have since reunited many times to telltheir story, even traveling to London to meet the Queen. “Today, I’m so happy I helped Kim,” said Ut, who still works for APand recently returned to Trang Bang village. “I call her mydaughter.” After four decades, Phuc, now a mother of two sons, can finallylook at the picture of herself running naked and understand why itremains so powerful. It had saved her, tested her and ultimatelyfreed her.
“Most of the people, they know my picture but there’s very few thatknow about my life,” she said. “I’m so thankful that … I canaccept the picture as a powerful gift. Then it is my choice. Then Ican work with it for peace.” ___ Online: ___ Follow Margie Mason at margiemasonap.